First things first:
You will never, ever completely eliminate fighting from the NHL. Just as professional baseball, football and basketball players occasionally grapple, there will always come a moment in a game when matters spontaneously combust. When you play a contact sport, when you put highly paid, highly competitive people together in an athletic forum, once in a while, tempers will flare. They just do.
That, however, is far different from what we saw on the opening night of the 2013-14 NHL season – another staged fight gone wrong, this time between Montreal Canadiens designated hitter George Parros and his Toronto Maple Leafs counterpart, Colton Orr.
The fact these two have a ring history made the spectacle all the more ridiculous. Years ago, Orr got hurt in a fight with Parros, when he was swung to the ice and hit his head. This time, the situation was reversed. Parros actually appeared to be getting the measure of Orr, but slipped when he was pulled forward and lost his balance.
Newsflash: That can happen when wrestling on thin skate blades on a sheet of ice. Orr pulled Parros down and Parros struck his chin on the ice. It knocked him out and eventually, it required him to be transported off the ice on a stretcher.
A game that had everything going for it up until that moment – action, lead changes, creative plays, quality goaltending – suddenly took a turn for the worse. The air went out of the building. The atmosphere went from celebratory to funereal – and to what end? Nothing was gained, but much was lost.
Parros, who has a concussion history, will now have to deal with the effects, short- and long-term, of another blow to the brain. But he is a willing combatant, just as there are about 30 or so of his NHL peers, willing to risk their personal safety to earn a high-six- or low-seven-figure salary at the highest level of professional hockey.
No one has to explain to a smart Princeton University economics grad guy such as Parros that he couldn’t earn this kind of money doing anything but playing the part of a highly paid gladiator.
Staged fights make so little sense you wonder why a league that is doing a lot of things right can be so blind about this one single issue. The NHL knows, full well, it blackens its reputation among casual fans, and you would think with sponsors as well.
As loudly as the league wants to protest that fighting is just a shrinking part of what actually happens in 1,230 regular-season games, plus playoffs, it doesn’t change the fact many people still associate hockey with brawling.
Until such time as the NHL ejects players for fighting, that mindset isn’t going to change, either.
And it really is as simple as amending that one rule. Instead of coincidental major penalties for fighting, tack on a game misconduct. Fight, and you’re gone for the rest of the night.
The argument against an automatic ejection is it will permit the “rats” to take over the game. NHL rats are a species of smaller, stick-and-run players that are thought to be policed and otherwise controlled by the presence of a fighter on the opposing team’s roster. Without that tacit threat – sort of like having the bomb, but not using it – they will theoretically run rampant and cause more injuries than what the designated fighters do.
Moreover, the belief is if the rats are permitted to run around unchecked, they will eventually challenge the Sidney Crosbys or Milan Lucics of the league to fight, in the hopes of getting them ejected. Trading off your rat for the other team’s star would create a competitive advantage.
Except, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The NHL could amend its fighting rule anyway it wanted to. If it is clear to the referee one player was trying to entice another into a fight so they could both get tossed, well, that’s what the instigator penalty is there for. The referee can call it however he sees it, same as today.
So many NHL rule changes involve splitting the baby in half, which could be interpreted in one of two ways – either as a lack of courage or a willingness to compromise. Mandatory visor use is grandfathered in, not unilaterally applied. Hybrid icing is introduced as a compromise between touch and no-touch icing. The thinking is baby steps are necessary to modify any long-standing behaviour.
Right now, there is no genuine willingness on the part of either the players or the owners to put a stop to staged fighting.
Whenever it comes up at his annual news conference, commissioner Gary Bettman will cite statistics saying fights are down – and they are – as if that’s good enough. The NHL Players’ Association, meanwhile, is in the business of protecting the job security of all its members – and if you remember anything about last year’s lockout, a disproportionate number of smart-guy pugilists, including Parros and Kevin Westgarth (Princeton, class of 2007) were front and centre in labour negotiations.
Their voices count when policy is being formed.
The bottom line is this: Until the public outcry to toughen the rules becomes far greater than it is today, it will be hard to budge either side from the status quo.
In the meantime, they’ll continue to cross their fingers and hope that whenever a player smashes his face into the ice, as Parros did Tuesday, that he will eventually get up again. Surely it won’t require a fatality before common sense ultimately prevails.